For my April 2008 diary, go here.

Diary - May 2008

John Baez

May 1, 2008

Todd Trimble pointed out an interesting movie of CO2 emissions in the US. Later I saw a similar movie of air traffic, which starts out great but degenerates into goofy visual effects near the end. They're both worth watching.

If you're feeling depressed about mysteriously crashing populations of bats and bees, amphibians, and other species, let the ginkgo be a lesson: there's a big difference between being almost extinct and being extinct. So, it pays to work hard to save species even when it seems almost hopeless.

The modern ginkgo tree is a "living fossil", the only surviving member of the phylum Ginkgophyta, which had its heyday in the Cretaceous, about 145 million years ago. The Cretaceous was the last period when dinosaurs walked the earth. During the cataclysm that killed the dinosaurs, all but two species of the ginkgo family died out. Their range has been contracting almost ever since. It's possible they had evolved to have their seeds dispersed by dinosaurs, in which case they may have been pining away ever since.

(Excuse the pun.)

Ginkgos are marked by some special features: extreme longevity, slow reproduction rate, low population density, and strong "ecological conservatism": they only like light soils around rivers. Presumably all these factors contribute to make ancient ginkgos almost indistinguishable from ginkgos today.

By the time the ice ages began — the end of the Pliocene and the start of the Pleistocene, 1.8 million years ago — they only survived in a certain part of central China.

After the apes evolved into humans and some in Europe became scientists, these western scientists found fossil ginkgo leaves and decided this was an extinct species of plant:

But, they were wrong! The ginkgo had survived in China, mainly in monasteries in the mountains and in palace and temple gardens, where Buddhist monks cultivated the tree starting around 1100 AD. Only a few wild ginkgos are known in China, especially around the southern slope of Jinfo Mountain near the border of Guizhou Province.

The Buddhists monks later took the ginkgo to Japan around 1190...

In 1691, a German physician and botanist named Engelbert Kämpfer, in Japan on a mission with the Dutch East-India Company, found ginkgos in Japan and brought back seeds to Holland. The trees from these first seeds survive today!

They were taken to America in 1784, and by the late 1800s it had become a popular tree for city streets on east coast urban areas. Now Ginkgo biloba is fashionable for its medical properties.

In short: its story continues! For more: